February 18, 2011
Whoda thunk it?
If cotton had been selling for $2 a pound when I was a kid, my whole life might have changed. One of my first memories is picking cotton with my mom in a field beside the frame house she and dad rented. The field couldn’t have been more than an acre, but I recall it as a large expanse of white that fall. I must have been 4 or 5. We moved into a new house (one with indoor plumbing) the spring before I turned 8 in July, and there was no cotton near the new place, so it had to have been before 1957.
Our next door neighbor was raising the crop and our mother, who had experience picking cotton, decided a few hours in the cotton patch would be a good way to make a little extra money for a growing family. There were three kids at the time.
Daddy worked in the mill and farmed a little on weekends, mostly gardening but occasionally raising grain or, one year, bell peppers, to sell. So I suspect he picked cotton on the weekends, too.
I remember dragging an age-appropriate picker sack through the dirt and taking the paltry amount of cotton I picked to the edge of the field and dumping it onto a big sheet, along with cotton my mom and older brother had picked. When it was full, the farmer pulled the corners together, knotted them and hoisted it onto the cotton scale to weigh.
I suspect we picked way less than a half-a bale in a day. Mom had to alternate between picking and minding kids so her efficiency likely was limited. And I don’t imagine I picked enough cotton to make a Q-Tip.
Based on a chart I Googled up from a Cornell University site, cotton in 1954 hit just a bit more than 33 cents a pound. It was a penny less in 1953, a penny higher in 1952 and had made it all the way to 40 cents in 1950.
Based on how hard I’m willing to toil in the heat now, extrapolated to how stubborn I was when I was 4 and 5, I suspect I might have picked 13 cents worth of cotton. Assuming my mother had a pretty good day, she may have picked 150 to 200 pounds. She told me once that she never got close to picking a bale in a day.
Let’s figure 200 pounds. It has zeroes on the end so it’s easier for my mathematically-challenged brain to cipher. A 200-pound haul at 33 cents a pound would be $66. That was pretty good money back then. Of course she wouldn’t get near that for picking for somebody else and I don’t know what the going rate for cotton pickers would have been. I need to ask when I call her this week.
But if cotton had sold for $2 a pound, she would have picked $400 worth of cotton. And my daddy would have quit working in the mill and would have turned my brothers and me into farmers, which would have been fine had cotton stayed at $2 a pound, but we all know that it would not have.
Also, I do remember that picking cotton by hand was painful hard work and that I was pretty reluctant to toil that hard when there were fish to be caught or baseball to be played. So I probably would have run away to join the circus and would have been mauled by a rogue elephant or something.
I am extremely pleased that cotton farmers today are selling cotton for historically high prices. They deserve it. They work hard for everything they get out of a cotton field. But if cotton had been that high when I was a kid, before cotton pickers came along…perish the thought.
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